Joseph Hayes’ Best in Dining

Our dining critic selects his favorites for 2010 in 25 categories that range from Indian to Italian, barbecue to burgers, seafood to sandwiches to schnitzel. (And wait till you see his pick for pizza!)




Best Restaurant

Primo

When Primo opened in 2003, I took a young cousin from England for his first fine dining adventure, and I got to watch his face as he experienced a bite of perfectly prepared lobster. I feel as he did every time I eat at executive chef Melissa Kelly’s ode to seasonal ingredients. Chef de cuisine Juan Martinez (right) is the latest implementer of Kelly’s culinary vision when she’s in one of her other restaurants, and he does it proud. Primo is the kind of restaurant where you fantasize about eating the food again. While you’re eating it. JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes, 4040 Central Florida Parkway, Orlando, 407-393-4444; grandelakes.com/Primo-78.html
 



Seafood

Winter Park Fish Company

Another in the series of small local restaurants so popular it’s almost impossible to get in, WPFC would be easy to hate for that reason alone. Until you do get a seat, and dig into a bowl of outrageously good seafood stew, or a platter of cod so perfectly fried that the memory of fast-food fish will be forever wiped from your brain. 761 Orange Ave., Winter Park, 407-622-6112; winterparkfish.com
 



BBQ

4Rivers Smokehouse

For a process that probably came about by accident, barbecue is mighty complicated. Hickory, applewood or mesquite, dry rub or wet grilled, North Carolina vinegar sauce or Georgia peach? Beef eaters in east Texas don’t like Tennessee pork, and nobody understands Kentucky mutton. But everybody likes the brisket, chicken and pulled pork that comes out of John Rivers’ kitchen. The line is long, but the food is worth waiting for. 2103 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park, 407-474-8377; 4rbbq.com
 



Italian

La Luce

Restaurateur Donna Scala understands that food, especially Italian food, is supposed to be fun. So while the service at La Luce is of Hilton caliber, the playful menu toys with our too, too serious expectations. Where else amidst expertly hand-made rustic pasta and wine-braised short ribs would you find a bianca pizza with figs and Gorgonzola dolce cheese, or butterscotch pudding (above) made with real Scotch? Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, 14100 Bonnet Creek Resort Lane, Orlando, 407-597-3600; laluceorlando.com



Japanese

Nagoya Sushi

In the Asian restaurant boom of the past decade, the focus has been on raw fish and increasingly inflated rolls with a dozen ingredients or more, to the point where sushi , a rather small part of Japanese cuisine, has become everything. Not at Nagoya. Owner Jenny Tay Lu, her husband, Danny, and his brother Calvin practice the very fine art of the itamai-san with inventive and delectable sushi. But they don’t neglect what’s called kitchen food: subtle and savory soups, broiled seafood and light and crispy tempura. Both restaurants have racks at the front door where regulars keep their chopsticks, and there are a lot of chopsticks. 7600 Dr. Phillips Blvd., Orlando 407-248-8558; 5661 Red Bug Lake Road, Winter Springs, 407-478-3388; nagoyasushi.com



Non-European

Jiko—the Cooking Place

A taste of Africa in a restaurant scene that all but ignores African cuisine. Jiko fuses Berber, South African, Moroccan and sub-Saharan flavors into dishes unlike anything you’ve had before. Vanilla tea and pork, salmon served with hot pepper, lemon goat cheese on grilled asparagus; it’s enough to make you realize there’s a whole world out there. 2901 Osceola Pkwy, Lake Buena Vista; 407-939-3463. disneyworld.disney.go.com



Indian

Kohinoor Indian Restaurant

The abundance of Indian restaurants on International Drive may attract the tourist crowds, but my favorite in this category is farther north. Kohinoor, named after the fabled 105 carat diamond, is a jewel of a restaurant, palatable enough for casual lunch buffet diners—a great value, by the way. It’s also uncompromisingly authentic, from blazing hot lamb vindaloo to sweet and cardamon-spiced gulab jamun dessert. The well-seasoned tandoor clay oven turns out splendid marinated chicken, fragrant and deep red from spices, and naan, roti and paratha that may be the ancestors of all breads. 249 W. State Road 436, Altamonte Springs, 407-788-6004; kohinoorindianrestaurant.com



Steak House

The Capital Grille

Steak houses have come a long way from the Mad Men days of smoked-filled rooms, huge hunks of meat and unrestrained cholesterol. The Capital Grille takes the old steak-centric concept and adds attention to detail, including service and presentation that are impeccable. Highlights include seafood sourced that day, tomatoes so ripe they burst in your mouth, and beef dry-aged in a temperature-and-humidity-controlled room where artistically marbled steaks blossom into their tender and flavor-concentrated best. 9101 International Drive, Orlando, 407-370-4392; thecapitalgrille.com



Sweet Treats

The Dessert Lady Café

It’s been my solemn responsibility to eat many a dessert in my career (it’s a dirty job …), but even 12 years after I first tasted baker-owner Patti Schmidt’s sugary creations, the Dessert Lady still takes the cake. And what cakes they are! She has works of art like the domed and Amaretto-soaked Tuscan zuccotto, her classic mile-high carrot cake, and a Neapolitan cake filled with three flavors of mousse. It doesn’t say so on the menu, but Schmidt invented those enticing mini-desserts at Seasons 52 as well, so the Lady knows her stuff. The Dessert Lady Café, 4900 S. Kirkman Road, Orlando, 407-822-8881; 120 W. Church St., Orlando, 407-999-5696; dessertlady.com



Chef

Scott Hunnel

Chicago native Hunnel has been chef de cuisine at Victoria & Albert’s, Central Florida’s only AAA Five-Diamond restaurant, since the mid 1990s, and has been nominated several times for a James Beard Foundation award as best Southern chef. That he’s never won is a travesty. Hunnel holds culinary court at a regal station in the bustling V&A kitchen, surrounded by fresh and often exotic ingredients while his staff performs magic. And unlike obnoxious TV chefs we could name, this exec is a cheerful guy with a passion for food—and the skill to keep you interested during every one of the countless plates that make up a four-hour meal. Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, 4401 Floridian Way, Lake Buena Vista, 407-939-3862; victoria-alberts.com
 



Burger (tie)

The Tap Room at Dubsdread

For many casual diners, the Tap Room is the only place in town for a good burger. Nestled like a piney woods lodge at the entrance to Dubsdread Golf Course, the current incarnation of the clubhouse restaurant has been open since 2001. The Tap Room’s burger is made of a half-pound of certified Angus beef, flame-broiled and draped in Tillamook cheddar from Oregon. Fill up with the burger and then go burn it off over 18 holes on one of the few local courses that let golfers do the unthinkable—walk. 549 W. Par St., Orlando, 407-650-0100; taproomatdubsdread.com
 

The Ravenous Pig

Burger aficionados of the foodie variety (you know who you are) can trace the genealogy of a burger back to its free-range organic roots, and just about every one of these fanatics in town points to The Ravenous Pig as the go-to location. This dish shows off the “pub” roots of this gastropub: caramelized onions and buttermilk bleu layered on a firm brioche roll are just enhancements for a thick, prime steak beauty—more boeuf Patricia than beef patty—served from a most discriminating kitchen. 1234 N. Orange Ave., Winter Park, 407-628-2333; theravenouspig.com
 



Restaurant for Kids

Bikkuri Sushi Noodle and Grill

What we know as sushi was invented, back in the 1800s, as fast food, a quick lunch for working families. While clever marketers have elevated fish and rice to gourmet standards, the dining room upstairs at Bikkuri (which means “surprise”) is simple and fast for the whole family. Let the youngsters choose from boba tea (those fruit juice drinks filled with tapioca pearls), noodles or teriyaki chicken, and they’ll be in kid heaven. And yes, children will eat sushi, especially if you start them on the kind made with cooked fish. 1919 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando, 407-894-4494; bikkurisushi.com



Upscale Mexican

Agave Azul

With its South Beach décor and hip background music, this place could be mistaken for just another faux Mexican bar-hopping hangout. But the sight—and taste—of avocado-laden guacamole fresco in an overflowing volcanic stone mortar, followed by hand-ground masa corn tacos, will tell you that this is no Taco Bore. Also try the chicken drenched in fresh mole so dark with Mexican chocolate that it absorbs light. 4750 S. Kirkman Road, Orlando, 407-704-6930; agaveazulorlando.com
 



Pizza

Nobody

Call me a snob. My standards for pizza range from the greasy, cheese laden wedges you’ll find on the streets of New York City to rustic, cracker-thin ovoids topped with fresh mozzarella di bufala cooked in a blistering hot oven in Naples. And in 15 years of searching here, I haven’t found anything that even comes close.
 



French

Chez Vincent

This Hannibal Square eatery epitomizes French cuisine in the form of owner/chef Vincent Gagliano (right), who literally built the restaurant with his bare hands and keeps it going with a passion that is la définition du style français. You could set his cozy brasserie down on Boulevard du Montparnasse without raising a Frenchman’s eyebrow. A meal here can be rich, and some might consider it expensive, but this is classic French cooking. Butter, cream and impeccable technique are worth every penny. 533 W. New England Ave., Winter Park 407-599-2929; chezvincent.com
 



Carnivores

Nelore Brazilian Steakhouse

In the early days of Brazilian colonization, gaucho cowboys would drive great herds of cattle across the grassy pampas, and spend long evening hours roasting spits of meat over open fires. From those roots the modern churrascaria (grilled meat house) was born, where skewer-wielding waiters called passadores (the word literally means someone thrusting a sword) wander the room with an endless assortment of pork, lamb, sausage and seven different cuts of beef. Primal protein hunters and lovers of aromatic grilled meats need go no further than Nelore; vegetarians should avert their eyes and move along. 115 E. Lyman Ave., Winter Park 407-645-1112; nelorechurrascaria.com
 



Sandwich

OLV Café’s smoked duck confit

OLV missed my sandwich roundup in our March issue by a few weeks, but it would have garnered high marks based on this canard-filled delight. I’m haunted by the tastes and textures of smoked duck thigh paired with creamy Boursin cheese, served with crisp and tart Granny Smith apples, drizzled with balsamic syrup reduction and presented on a crusty ciabatta roll. 25 W. Crystal Lake St., Orlando, 407-722-5060; olvcafe.com
 



Small Restaurant

Chef’s Table at the Edgewater

Chef’s Table is small (nine tables), kind of hard to find (at the back end of the Edgewater Hotel in old Winter Garden), and some might say pricey. It is also on the forefront of a new wave of fascinating, chef-run Central Florida restaurants that may just get us noticed by the rest of the country. Kevin Tarter (pictured with his wife, Laurie) takes his experience in the kitchens of Victoria & Albert’s and New Orleans legend Arnaud’s and creates a space that defines the words intimate and superior. 99 W. Plant St., Winter Garden 407-230-4837;
chefstableattheedgewater.com

 



Chain

Seasons 52

They’re popping up everywhere (it is a chain, after all), so how can they possibly be this good? Someday we may realize that what Darden called its “concept kitchen” was the opening volley in a game of locally sourced, seasonable dining that everyone seems to be joining. Until then, praise for Seasons 52’s splendid, ever-changing, never-boring meals will have to be enough. 7700 Sand Lake Road, Orlando 407-354-5212; 463 E. Altamonte Drive, Altamonte Springs 407-767-1252; seasons52.com
 


 
Vegetarian (tie)

Casual bite: Infusion Tea

If a light snack and a poetry reading, art show or farmers market is what you crave, Infusion is the organic, locally sourced, meticulously assembled, drop-by-for-afternoon-tea winner. 1600 Edgewater Drive, Orlando 407 999-5255; infusionorlando.com
 

Sit-down: Udipi Café

It stands in a strip mall that has seen better days, where once the fabled Clay Oven restaurant stood. Inside, the décor is spare, the lighting harsh. The food is glorious, an homage to the cuisine of Karnataka, the southern Indian state where Udipi is the capital city. Even though most dishes follow the precepts of the Jain religion (no root vegetables, garlic or onions, and no meat), the menu is alive with flavors, textures and color. 1275 South U. S. Highway 17-92, Longwood, 407-696-7775
 



Piece of Old Florida

Lee & Rick’s Oyster Bar

It used to be called Lee & Rick’s Half Shell Oyster Bar, but nothing is done by half at this throwback to Florida’s past. I was lucky enough to be sitting at the battered concrete bar, tossing back sweet Apalachicola oysters, at the restaurant’s 50th and 60th anniversaries, and I hope to be sitting on that same revolving stool in 2020 for the 70th. The room is as funky and no-nonsense as ever and the oyster supply is pristine and plentiful. 5621 Old Winter Garden Road, Orlando, 407-293-3587
 



Waiters Who Try the Hardest

Machon

At this student-run restaurant at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, you’re as likely to be served by an energetic young woman, tattoos peeking out of her starched white sleeve, as you are to have a patient, middle-aged man remember your order without use of pad and pen. Whether beginning their first culinary career or taking a new course during the economic meltdown, the students at the college all take a turn standing tableside, quoting the day’s specials and filling water glasses. That they all do it with charm and enthusiasm is reason enough to visit; the great food is a bonus. 8511 Commodity Circle, Orlando, 407-313-8792; chefs.edu/orlando/restaurant.asp



Urban Hangout

HUE

Nine years since HUE opened and it still serves well-executed meals in a busy and hip setting. (The idea that the name means Hip Urban Environment is, well, an urban legend.) Frankly, the menu has waned and waxed over the years, but that can be said about almost any restaurant. Still, when the place has a success (pastas and fish are particularly pleasing), it’s a killer. The well-thought-out and highly popular outside sitting area is one of the (very) few in which I would actually consider sitting curbside. It’s an apt place to eat for the beautiful people and, face it, you’re beautiful, too. 629 E. Central Blvd. Orlando, 407-849-1800; huerestaurant.com.
 



Schnitzel (tie)

Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café

When it comes to schnitzel, the critical concerns include pounding cutlets to a certain thinness, using the right amount of breading, and finding the correct cooking temperature. One misstep can mean the difference between a crisp, enjoyable classic and soggy chicken-fried disaster. In my recent tour of local German restaurants, the superb quality of food at Willow Tree stood out so far I had trouble remembering the others.205 E. First St., Sanford, 407-321-2204; willowtreecafe.com

Chef Henry’s Cafe

Regardless of the origins of schnitzel (some say it came from Italy), the dish has become an Eastern European treasure far outside of Germany. My Slavic roots continue to lead me gratefully to the Hungarian and Bohemian delights served by Henry Brestowski and his family. 1831 W. State Road 434, Longwood
407-331-4836; chef-henrys.com
 



Combination of Wine List and View

California Grill at the Contemporary Hotel

Disney, with its deep pockets, can afford a world-class restaurant overlooking the Magic Kingdom, and a wine list that is staggeringly inclusive. The views are an impressive combination of man-made fantasy and wonderful expanses of untouched natural greenery. Sitting by the wall-length windows with a selection from the expansive and particularly good wine list—a dozen Cabernets, 16 different Chardonnays just to start—is a great way to end any evening. Time your dining to see the fireworks. 4600 N. World Drive, Orlando, 407-939-3463; disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/california-grill

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